Work and Employment in Post-Manufacturing Society – part nine (last part) by Michael Shanks

Each of these proposals britles with difficulties, and none can be recommended without a great deal of further study. What is depressing, however, is that (at least as far as I am aware) they are really not being adequately studied in any country today. I would be very happy indeed to be proved wrong on that point.

A fourth solution which is, very naturally, beeing advanced in many quarters to the problem of unemployment is work sharing. Here I believe we have to separate two elements. A deliberate policy of dividing the available work between more people seems to me to have very limited scope for resolving our present problems, if only because of the increasing costs it would involve – unless, which seems very unlikely, those sharing jobs are prepared to accept a commensurate (corresponding in size or degree) reduction in wages.

On the other hand there is obvious scope for taking people out of the workforce by earlier retirement, or by prolonigng pre-work training – provided it is recognised that by so doing we are merely shifting the incidence of joblessness between age groups (for which there may well be sound reasons). In other words, this is a palliative not a solution.

In any event, it seems inevitable that as we move through the 1980s there will be progressive reductions in the working week, with earlier retirement, longer holidays (including quite possibly mid-career sabbaticals) and restrictions on overtime. Whether this will create significantly more jobs is open to question, but that it will improve the general quality of life is very probable. The problem for employers will be to see that the reduction in hours does not push up unit costs excessively.

So far as can be judged from rather inadequate records, normal working hours in the mid-nineteenth century averaged around 65-70 hours per week. From then until 1939 there was a steady reduction to around 40-45 hours. Normally one would have expected the trend to continue downwards. But the demand for labour in the post-war boom arrested the trend, and average hours woked did not start to fall again until the early 1970s. Since then they have been dropping slowly but steadily, so that today average hours worked in industry throughout the Western world are probably around 38-40 (allowing for overtime an short-time).

My guess is that by 1990 this fiugre will have fallen to around 32-34 hours, and effectively we will move from a five day to a four day working week. This will have a number of radical effects on society. It will greatly increase the scope for “moonlighting”, enabling people if they wish to hold down two jobs; it will greatly boost the hidden economy, in which the second job will normally be worked. At the same time it will create major opportunities for new leisure industries to be developed, and one’s guess is that the leisure sector (including, hopefully, expanded education and training) will be among the most buoyant growth areas of the post mannufacturing economy. Whatever else it is, the world of the 1990s is likely to be one in which work plays a smaller part in the totality of people’s lives, and leisure a greater part, than today. Hopefully, also, the present sharp divisions in our lives between work and leisure will become more blurred, as work becomes less aruous and disciplined and leisure more purposeful and creative (for those who wish it to be).

So the prospect for mankind in the post-manufacturing era is one of challenge and opportunity. The risks are obvious, the opportunities immense. But in order tor grasp the opportunity, society has to become much better at coping with change -which will be occurring at an ever accelerating rate. We have to make our institutions, particularly our political institutions, much more creative and much more flexible. The present widespread disaffection regarding our institutions -the pervasive view that “small is beautiful” and “big is ugly” – is not necessarily the most appropriate set of attitudes for approaching the post-manufacturing era. We cannot exist without institutions, and if our present institutions are thought to be incapable of dealing with today’s problems – let alone tomorrow’s – that is an ominous sign. Our institutions cannot be ignored. They have to be reformed. We cannot sit back, as some advocates of the post-industrial society have suggested, and wait for technology to resolve our present tensions and lead us complacently towards a golden, affluent future. Technology has not solved society’s problems so far. For every problem it has solved it has tended to create a new one. Why should the future be any different?

Technology, in short, is a tool to be used, not a magic wand to be waved. In the end society will be what we want it to be and are prepared to make it. The solutions in the end rest, as they always have done, with us. In this sense tomorrow’s Garden of Eden will be no different from that described in Gensis. It will be up to us to give the story a happier ending.


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